After 20 years as a researcher at the CSIR, Dr Raj Lalloo has grabbed the opportunity to put that knowledge and experience to good use. Image provided by the CSIR.
In recent years, bacteria from the genus Bacillus have shown promise for a number of industrial applications because they secrete enzymes that break down pollutants like chemical oxygen demand (COD, a proxy measure of organic pollutants), ammonia, nitrates, and phosphates. These bacteria can also survive as spores for long periods of time, break down solid waste material and reduce odours.
“We call this our ‘agile manufacturing approach’,” says Lalloo. From concept to product, the whole process can take less than six months.
The CSIR in Pretoria has spent 10 years building a library of naturally-occurring, South African Bacillus strains with potential commercial value.
Approximately two years ago, Dr Raj Lalloo saw an opportunity to use this growing biological library for the good of all South Africans. “There was increasing market interest in tangible products,” he says, “and the CSIR decided to create a spin-off company to give the opportunity the attention it required.”
With encouragement and support from BIDC manager Dr Dusty Gardiner, the wider commercialisation team at the CSIR, and his business mentor Richard Fearon (the CSIR’s ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’), Lalloo took the plunge. “’Live in the realms beyond certainty’, Fearon told me, ‘because uncertainty is much more fun.’”
Officially launched in September 2014, with Lalloo as Chief Technical Officer, OptimusBio, in partnership with CSIR, develops eco-friendly biological products for sanitation, water treatment, aquaculture and agriculture, using these indigenous bacteria.
Lalloo (who is also Chief Researcher at the CSIR’s Biomanufacturing Industry Development Centre (BIDC)) worked hard to create a platform that can quickly manufacture products customised to the specific needs of a client. During the six months leading up to OptimusBio’s official launch, Lalloo and his specialist team of bioprocess researchers, as well as BIDC intern Busi Mtsweni, assessed the needs of potential clients in order to develop products they would actually use.
This customer-first approach forms the core of how OptimusBio operates.
When a company or an industrial group has a remediation problem, they can approach OptimusBio with an effluent sample. The CSIR then screens the bacterial library and selects bacterial species based on the type of waste compounds in the sample. These are formulated into consortia (several species grouped for the requirements of a specific product), and tested at the CSIR in vitro, followed by market evaluations and development of a specific manufacturing technology.
BIDC intern Busi Mtsweni is shown here with one of OptimusBio’s bacterial products. Image provided by the CSIR.
A great technology opportunity, smart business sense and a genuine desire to improve the lives of all South Africans together create a powerful impetus for a small enterprise like OptimusBio. With Lalloo at the helm, backed by the expertise of the CSIR, the future looks bright.
Ultimately, Lalloo wants OptimusBio to manufacture products that help preserve South Africa’s natural resources (particularly water) and the environment. But that’s not all – he believes that the company has a responsibility to promote the South African economy, and help improve the quality of life of its citizens.
A good example of how he hopes to achieve this lofty ambition is OptimusBio’s BioPit product, which is a pit latrine additive: it is a sachet of dry material that can be mixed with water and added to a pit latrine to break down solid waste; reduce odour, flies, and harmful bacteria; and reduce latrine waste contamination of soil and groundwater.
At less than R20 per month, BioPit is extremely affordable for the rural communities that need it most. Because the bacteria within it are indigenous, proven safe and not genetically modified, there is no chance of contamination and no regulatory hurdles to jump.
But perhaps most importantly, this product will help other small enterprises along the value chain beginning at OptimusBio, through to the end-user.
Says Lalloo, “We wanted to provide a mechanism that would allow a broad group of people to participate, including corporates, hotel chains, governments, domestic households, farmers and rural communities.”
The company initially focussed on selling products to other businesses, such as cleaning companies or wastewater management facilities, as they also produce an industrial-scale sewage remediation product. Recently, it expanded to produce its own range of consumer cleaning products under the OptimusBio brand name. Lalloo says they are also working with around 20 individuals and small companies to ensure their products reach rural communities.
Dr Raj Lalloo is Chief Technical Officer of OptimusBio and Chief Researcher at the BIDC. He hopes to grow OptimusBio into a successful manufacturing company that protects the environment, supports socioeconomic development and improves the lives of all South Africans.